Bristol International Balloon Fiesta 2018 - Review
Sponsored by Bristol Energy for a second year, the famous Bristol Balloon Fiesta was returning to Ashton Court Estate for its 40th anniversary and the organisers had many surprises in store. Anticipation was building as the 2018 hot air ballooning season began in Bristol and Bath with everyone looking forward to the main event. St Peters Hospice were the charity partners with Bailey Balloons providing their Z-105 G-CDIT for advertising over the fiesta weekend. MJ Ballooning enjoyed working with the official fiesta from late June during the build-up, announcing the special shapes attending with some classics returning and new favourites appearing for the first time. It was set to be another amazing balloon fiesta.
Ashton Court was chosen as the location for the 2018 press launch, which is where the first ever fiesta took place from forty years ago, in 1979. Twenty-seven balloons took part in the first year with many successful flights and some teams travelling from as far as Germany to participate. Known as the ‘bowl’ of Ashton Court, this was used as the launch site until 1989/1990 when it was moved to the other side of the trees to the larger field as balloon numbers grew.
After a few cancelled slots due to weather not being ideal, the press launch was confirmed for Wednesday 1st August. We arrived on site bright and early to a very busy Ashton Court with twenty teams setting up and laying out in the bowl. This included some private and commercially operated balloons. The partner and sponsor balloons inflated slightly up the hill at the top end of the bowl and these were First Flight’s Thatchers and Tribute, as well as Bailey Balloons’ Anana and solar G-CIRX operated by Phoenix Balloons. BWS Standfast’s new Z-105 was appearing at the fiesta for the first time in 2018, which is one of two built along with a Z-31 hopper. Exclusive Ballooning’s Kubicek-built envelope Renishaw was back for another year, plus Flying Enterprises’ Hardys and Fishtank. Built in 2015, G-CIUK owned by Cameron Balloons also appeared, made with superlight fabric, along with other regulars.
The SSW wind direction gave the crew an easy retrieve to the Downs as balloons flew over the Clifton suspension bridge. Though some decided to fly on much further.
After another early start getting up to see Chubb fly from the fiesta field with Thatchers and Japanese team JA-A1577, midday soon arrived, and it was time for the 40th Bristol Balloon Fiesta to get underway. We already felt pretty tired after the morning but couldn’t wait for the manic four days of fiesta fun to begin. Once we had bought our programme and got access to the arena, we were ready to go. A few balloon teams were already on the field with SM Gauge and Thatchers just about ready to start cold inflating. They were the first stood up and the wind didn’t seem too bad currently. However, this was forecast to dramatically pick up to around 20kts as the day progressed and nobody seemed very confident that much would happen later. Lindstrand built 105 Southern Plasticlad was next to inflate, followed by Dribuild and the Airship & Balloon Company (ABC). Cameron Z-77 built in 2016 and sponsored by Shield environmental services was making its Bristol debut this year and hadn’t been to many events previously. Last to tether, much to the crowds’ delight, was the Stuart the Minion special shape registered G-DMEZ. Stuart is one of two Minion special shapes with the other, G-DMEZ, still having the Prison artwork on after the 2017 tour. Noticeably the winds were becoming more of an issue as time went on as baskets began jumping off the ground as the gusts whipped through the site.
Thursday Special Shape Rodeo
Sadly, the winds were too strong to fly on Thursday night as expected, but we were hoping someone would at least attempt to tether. The British Balloon Museum & Library (BBM&L) had agreed to bring many of their old shapes from their vast collection along for the 40th anniversary, which certainly helped with achieving ‘40 special shapes for 40 years’ (#40for40). These were stored in a huge lorry behind the marquee all weekend for any pilots to inflate whenever they wanted to, and a forklift was used to get them out. Two of the easier special shapes were picked to tether on Thursday evening; the golf ball and retro Andrews liver salts can. Built in 1989 and registered G-PUTT, the golf ball first appeared at the fiesta in 2016 tethering after the Sunday morning ascent. Promoting the BBM&L’s bi-annual inflation day at Pidley, it was previously registered in Luxembourg until 1995. The Andrews Can was created by Cameron Balloons also in 1989 and was seen at many events across the UK. It was designed with a helium balloon release mechanism in the top, which held 500 white toy balloons. When the pilot pulled a rope in the basket the can ‘fizzed’ on launch, but this wasn’t used very often. It hadn’t been inflated for several years so would be interesting to see its condition.
Lighter Than Air pulled onto the field too with their brand new Buster the Dog special shape, which was expected to be very popular. We saw the test inflation of this before it went out to Taiwan, and you can watch a video here. All three managed to tether for a short time. The Andrews can looked superb and was hardly moving in the gusts, inflated by pilot Dave Groombridge. It was a fantastic effort to put on a show in the extremely harsh winds.
Just as we thought that was almost it until the night glow, something very special was happening at the far end of the arena. The most popular special shape ever to grace the skies of Bristol was being laid out for the first time in twenty-three years. Yes, Rupert Bear was back! We had heard stories for years about how badly Rupert had been burnt and that it wouldn’t be able to stand up properly. Pilot Steve Kinsey and his team were willing to give it a good go and let Rupert stand tall over Ashton Court once more after all those years. It was such an exciting moment. Two fans were turned on at full power pointing directly at the mouth, which was in a dreadful state. But as Rupert began inflating the top half didn’t look too bad. We were just hoping that the winds would not prove too strong for him to stand up. The burner was fired up and Rupert began swaying from side to side in the gusts, until finally he became upright, waving to the thousands of people watching who gave a huge cheer. Not for long, but he managed to stand tall at this great event once more. Rupert had finally woken up after a very long, deep sleep. What a sight.
As all this was happening, Exclusive Ballooning were tethering their Ricoh cube special shape by the marquee, returning for a sixth year. Also, G-HOME was tethered, which appeared at the fiesta 40 years ago!
Thursday Night Glow
The wind had completely dropped out as forecast, which made for perfect night glow conditions. All the way from America, the Wish Cake special shape was supposed to be taking part in the glow, but it needed even calmer conditions. We would see this famous shape at another time. Usual balloons took part and was a spectacular sight. You can relive the moment on our YouTube channel. G-LEXI and a Kubicek demonstrator also were included.
We headed back up to Ashton Court for 5:30am on Friday and whilst walking up the conditions were a lot better than we expected. All rides had already cancelled the night before, but could the flight be called on? As we walked into the marquee for the briefing, the pilots were told that a band of heavy rain was approaching, and they had around one hour to tether for press and pack away before it arrived. Exclusive Ballooning started inflating Renishaw, Ricoh, Simbaloo and Fortnums alongside ABC’s Shield envelope, the solar balloon and Bailey Balloons’ Belvoir fruit farms special shape. Registered G-CKFI, Belvoir was built by Cameron Balloons in 2017. Flying Enterprises were also busy with Fishtank, Hardys and Raffeallo. Meanwhile, stealing all the limelight was the Owlbert Eyenstein special shape from America, booked especially by the organisers for the 40th anniversary celebrations. Kubicek Balloons’ fish special shape was also tethered making its debut at the fiesta. Registered OK-1209, the fish was originally designed with a smiley face, but it was decided they wanted it with a sad face instead after the test inflation!
As the clouds became ever darker, a few of the 1979 balloons began inflating. One of these is G-EIIR, built by Cameron Balloons in 1978 for the Queen’s silver jubilee and now owned by Bristol Balloon Collectors. Chubb was inflated for a short tether too, which is the third of three Chubb fire extinguisher balloons made, with G-BZJA being built in 2000. It attended the fiesta until 2008 and put into storage with the BBM&L, although still owned by Chubb. A secret test inflation took place earlier in May 2018 at the Ashton Court bowl to assess the condition of the envelope, and you can watch the video here. Piloted by Phil Hooper, the original basket was still being used with the balloon and still looking great. Andrew Kaye was in attendance with all five of his special shapes in 2018, of which he inflated two on Friday morning. The first was the Orange registered G-CDXW, followed by the Barclays House G-BWZP. These had been seen in the UK earlier in the year at the Midlands Air Festival.
After that the rain finally arrived and we were stuck in the marquee for quite some time before heading back to Ashton for a short rest and then back up in the afternoon.
The forecasted rain actually did not arrive until three hours after, but we will never know what could have happened that morning.
Soon the sun came out and dried up the morning’s heavy rainfall and it was nearly time to get ourselves back to Ashton Court to hopefully see some tethering. It was still windy, but if you can inflate Rupert Bear in 20kts+, you can do anything! We heard the Scottish Piper special shape was being laid out along with the Minion, both gas flames and Michelin Man, so hotfooted it back up and made it in time. It was a real struggle to inflate, especially with the BBM&L shapes being so old. Muir Moffat, who in 1997 paid Cameron Balloons to build the Piper just for fun, was there to see the Scotsman be inflated at Ashton Court once again. Ian Martin of Flying Enterprises was in charge and did a great job in the very windy weather. It was so amazing to see the Piper back at the Bristol Balloon Fiesta where he belongs. The detail of this shape astonishes us every time we see it and will always be our favourite.
Everybody seemed hopeful that the Friday evening launch would be going ahead and even the ride balloons confirmed but did say it was looking very 50/50. As briefing time approached it was apparent that it was too windy, so sadly had to be cancelled. So far, the weather certainly had not been on our side and the only chance to fly was the next morning. Flight director of the flying committee, Clive Bailey, explained what would be happening for the Saturday morning mass ascent. Special shapes and ride balloons would need to be on the field very early to set up and take off, followed by all other teams once they were in the air.
Bailey Balloons tethered their Belvoir special shape for around five minutes before it was pulled down. By 8pm on Friday the wind had dropped out nicely and there was a definite opportunity to fly, but the decision had already been made.
So, the main morning had arrived. Hundreds and hundreds of families had made the effort to come and watch the first, and likely only, mass ascent of 2018. New Buster the Dog was laid out, plus Aston Martin making a comeback to Bristol after eleven years, Owlbert Eyenstein, Chubb and Belvoir. But all eyes were on one balloon in particular; the mighty Superbike! Now registered PH-GJV in Holland, the Superbike had attended Bristol before in 2010 and 2011 when it was operated by Lindstrand Media for George White Ltd. One of the largest balloons in the whole world, it is a massive thirty-seven metres tall and forty-six metres wide. All these shapes were airworthy and took off shortly after Thatchers and the other passenger balloons.
Around 120 balloons took off from this launch with the wind taking them towards Clifton and the Downs. Many of the large shapes landed the other side of the trees, which was slightly disappointing for spectators watching from the Clifton observatory. Built in 1990 by Thunder & Colt, G-PSON, the Panasonic Battery special shape was making its return to the city since the late 1990s at this ascent. Exclusive Ballooning flew Ricoh and the Longleat Lion too. Towards the end the Kubicek fish became airborne gaining significant height above the estate. Now it was time for the old special shape tether, which promised to be a real treat.
As the last few balloons left the field, many special shape teams drove in hoping to inflate some past favourites of the fiesta. The forecast was for it to become increasingly cloudy as the morning went on and winds were meant to pick up, so there wasn't any hanging around. The first special shape to tether was the BBM&L's EA Expansion Joint, which was built by Cameron Balloons in 1981 and appeared at some of the first Bristol Balloon Fiestas. It wasn't meant to be coming so was a surprise when we heard about it on the Thursday. Meanwhile G-CJWY, a Cameron superlight hopper, was entertaining the crowds, piloted by Steve Roake. The next shape of the museum was the Barrel, which attended and even flew from here in 2008. G-PINT was originally sponsored by Charles Wells Ales who had two special shapes in the 1980s and a barrel-shaped basket. Since being donated to the BBM&L the artwork had gone and now is one of their sponsor envelopes along with G-PUTT. Kenny Blancquaert of History of Ballooning had travelled from Belgium to attend with his DHL 'world in a box' and Virgin Jumbo special shapes. Three Virgin plane balloons were built; G-OVAA and G-BRDP in 1989 and this one, G-UMBO, three years earlier in 1986. Essentially round envelopes with 'add-ons', these shapes are much easier to fly and can withstand windier conditions compared to the taller shapes. G-OUAE was also made for Emirates and had larger add-ons. Sadly, DHL was not inflated due to the winds picking up - the one everyone wanted to see the most! Kenny has a few other old UK shapes in his collection too, such as Unipart, Pete the Pylon and the Samsung printer.
Both Bertie Bassetts were back for the 40th anniversary but had already been seen at the Midlands Air Festival in May. It was the first time G-BXAL and G-BZTS had been inflated together in Bristol since 2001 when they were operated by Phoenix Balloons. G-BZTS was seen tethered for a short time in 2006 too. It was great to see these classics back at Ashton Court after a spectacular 40 years of hot air ballooning action
At the other end of the arena, Sky High Ballooning had returned from their flight and wasted no time tethering their Chubb special shape. The BBM&L's Agfa film roll was inflated, still looking in superb condition in a likely airworthy state. Pilot James McDonald was also preparing to tether the Old Parr Whiskey bottle, also owned by the museum, which tethered for around ten minutes.
To celebrate 40 years, the organisers had arranged for American pilot Frank Prell to attend with his famous Wish Cake special shape. Built by Lindstrand in 1992 under G-WISH, it was then rebuilt in 2001 and registered G-BZNZ, until later being changed to N (USA). Seen at many balloon festivals around the world, on photos from around 2016 it was looking a little tired and not in great condition. It hadn't been inflated or seen anywhere since then. Despite this, we couldn't wait to see it. The team laid out the Lindstrand envelope ready for the fans to be switched on. As it began to stand up, it was struggling in the winds which really were not that strong yet. For a few seconds it was properly inflated, but then, just like the photos we had seen, the bottom kept collapsing in on itself. The burners always had to be kept on or the mouth of the envelope would have closed up.
The wish cake was pulled down but would be inflated once more alongside Flying Enterprises who were preparing the Scottish Piper. With playing bagpipes and the Piper stood with the background of the Bristol sign, this was quite a moment.
As the winds were now becoming very gusty, the last few balloons were inflated. And looking at the weather forecast ahead for the evening and Sunday, this was effectively the end of the event already. Owned by the BBM&L, SM Gauge pilot Craig Thompson inflated the beer mug, created way back in 1979. Using the Torex 120 bottom end, old classic Mr Peanut was successfully inflated after a few attempts. One of two peanut men created by Cameron Balloons in the early 1980s, G-NUTS was donated to the BBM&L after being permanently withdrawn from use in 1990. It was originally operated by The Balloon Stable. Mysteriously, the fate of the other identical shape after being sold to America registered G-PNUT is unknown. ABC's Stuart the Minion tethered for five minutes, plus Mercury Communications registered G-BVBX was inflated. Previously unsure about the condition of this shape, it looked fantastic and was one of our favourites.
Unfortunately, none of the other museum special shapes were seen at the 2018 fiesta, even though they were on site. There was plenty of time to inflate them from Thursday to Saturday lunchtime, but possibly a lack of pilots meant this wasn't possible. Other museum shapes we didn't see were: Ariel bottle, Sparkplug, Perrier bottle and Nescafe. Interestingly, the museum were originally bringing the Robinson's bottle, Bowler Hat which was undergoing restoration and Maxwell House. In July the list was changed to not include these, which were replaced by others (Andrews, Mercury, Old Parr). It was also said that the expansion joint would no longer be attending, but this was seen on Saturday morning after the museum had asked a pilot to bring it along months before.
Flying Enterprises' Stowells wine box wasn't seen at all throughout the fiesta, as was Lighter Than Air's Paddy Power pants. Lighter Than Air often promise that this shape will appear, just like in 2016, but never does - so was hardly a surprise. Wes the Wolf and the ex-Palletways Slick the Dragon did not appear either, but there was lots of uncertainty about these, and also G-SATI. If the weather was better, we would have seen more.
Weather took a turn for the worse once tethering had finished with a band of rain passing through the area. But this didn't stop the Exclusive Ballooning team from inflating their Longleat lion special shape, known as Simbaloo, at a soggy Ashton Court.
The planned mass ascent was black flagged on Saturday evening, meaning it was not safe for flying or tethering.
Saturday Basket Glow
A first for the fiesta - a night glow but with a twist. A basket glow took place on Saturday night. Yes, no hot air balloon envelopes! We know this sounds a little strange, but it was a great show despite the far from ideal weather. It was too windy to safely proceed with the usual night glow, but the crowds still turned out in their thousands to watch this marvellous fire show.
It was announced that the site would open at 11am on Sunday due to adverse weather and that the flying committee would review conditions for the evening ascent, but it was not looking good.
We headed back up to the site for the final time in 2018. As expected the launch was cancelled and many non-local balloon teams had already left the day before. Lighter Than Air and Flying Enterprises put on a quick tether before the heavy rain arrived. So that was the 2018 fiesta - very exciting even though only one flight took place. What will 2019 have in store?
All photos MJ Ballooning.
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Written by Matt Joyce 03/02/19